'Scotland and Arbroath 1320-2020', edited by Klaus Peter Müller (published by Peter Lang)
This a very strange book in a range of ways. Its striking subtitle is '700 Years of Fighting for Freedom, Sovereignty, and Independence'. The use of the term 'fighting' alone may well raise a few eyebrows. Then there are issues over presentation. The editor's Introduction
and each of its 24 chapters by different hands are headed by a brief Abstract
of its contents. This is followed by a list of keywords: history; Arbroath; freedom; sovereignty; enlightenment; industry – that kind of thing. Only then is the reader allowed to begin reading the chapter. It would be mischievous to suggest that taking on board these preliminaries allows the reader to move on to the next chapter, but it is not clear what is their point.
In what follows, footnotes occasionally appear in the traditional way, but the main source of citations and quotations occur mid-paragraph in this manner: 'Scholars disagree on which side he favours most (e.g. Tatlock 1950, 181f, 396-402,414,418)'. To identify Tatlock, one has to turn to the pages of bibliography which appears here, as throughout the volume, at the chapter's end. (The same books keep recurring in these bibliographies.) I must say, I found this form of citation an irritating interruption to the flow of argument. But these are minor issues compared with what follows.
Scotland and Arbroath
is Scottish Studies International 43, a publication of the Scottish Studies Centre at the university of Mainz. (A piece of my own appeared in volume 41.) Hence one expects it to be edited with traditional scholarly objectivity, distancing and impersonality. But this is not the case here. Professor Müller makes his own views perfectly clear. More than once he tells us that Brexit is a catastrophe for both Europe and the UK. I happen to agree with him but nonetheless it is no small surprise to read his denunciation of Boris Johnson as a liar, and Theresa May as a betrayer of democracy, of the 'outright lie' that the English Parliament is the mother of democracy, that the Labour Party is no better and that Corbyn too must go.
Scotland, on the other hand, 'has a much better sense of democracy'. It comes as no surprise to learn finally that Professor Müller is a supporter of the SNP. And his book? This is the final sentence of its Introduction
: 'Our book is, therefore, evidently also meant to help bringing about Scottish independence in 2020 or at least in the coming decade'. That is why Robert Crawford concludes the volume with what he calls 'A Public Declaration' which takes the form of 'A Declaration for Independence, 2019' and involves reprinting 1989's A Claim of Right for Scotland
, including its list of some 48 leading pro-independence Scottish artists, writers, actors, broadcasters and journalists.
Ironically enough, the contents of Scotland and Arbroath
turn out not to be any kind of clarion call in favour of Scottish independence. Its structure is a chronological one consisting of four sections. The opening three chapters focus on the Middle Ages, while the following four feature the Early Modern period. Then there are seven chapters on the period 1800 to 2000, and finally 11 chapters covering the 20th and 21st centuries.
The size of the sections tells a story. The impact of the so-called Declaration of Arbroath was for centuries a significantly limited one. In chapter after chapter, the contributors acknowledge that its impact – philosophical, institutional, historical or cultural – was marginal or merely indirect. The Magna Carta of 1215 quickly established itself as providing the fundamental basis of English freedom and constitutionalism. Arbroath achieved absolutely nothing comparable. One contributor suggests that, as late as the 19th century, Scots in general were more familiar with Magna Carta and its significance than with what had by then become the Declaration of Arbroath. It is only in the very recent past that Arbroath has made any impact on the national consciousness.
Different chapters in the book make it clear why this is so. The letter from the Scottish nobility to Pope John XXII in 1320 asking for the recognition of Robert the Bruce as the legitimate king of Scotland and insisting on Scotland's independence as a country which they were prepared to defend whatever the cost, was written in Latin possibly by the then Abbot of Arbroath. Hence it had no popular currency. No medieval Scottish historian refers to it, and it was not until 1689, well over three centuries later, that an English translation finally appeared. However, it remained largely neglected throughout the 18th century. The major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment pay no attention to it, and in the world of the UK post 1707, the virulent anti-Englishness of the letter was no kind of recommendation.
In the 19th century, there was plenty evidence of a lively and enduring Scottish cultural nationalism, but this in no way spilled over into any widespread demand for constitutional change. Scotland had obviously prospered within the United Kingdom. Why make a change? Scott's Waverley Novels
had become a worldwide success. Early on, Scottish history figured prominently in his novels, but significantly Scott never wrote a fictional account of the Scottish wars of independence. His only reference to the Declaration itself occurred in his children's history book Tales of a Grandfather
. Even then, his account is an equivocal one: it was 'a spirited manifesto or memorial, in which strong sense and a manly spirit of freedom are mixed with arguments suited to the ignorance of the age'. These 'arguments' refer to the lengthy sections of the original letter concerning the alleged genealogy of 113 Scottish kings, and the nation's superior religious status as a result of its link with St Andrew.
When finally things began to change in the later 19th century with the emergence of a nascent Scottish Home Rule movement, this dimension of the Declaration was ignored – just as it was when Scottish nationalism began to replace Home Rule in the 20th century. The only sentences of the letter that really mattered were those flagging up Scotland's national independence and its tradition of popular sovereignty. But the relevant chapters in the book make it clear that while the Declaration undoubtedly had at last gained a much wider national – and even international – audience, still its use by the SNP and its supporters remained carefully qualified and selective.
One thing missing from this weighty volume is a chapter explaining when and why the bishop's letter to the Pope transitioned into the Declaration of Arbroath. Given the technology available to today's researchers, I'd have thought it entirely appropriate to commission such a chapter. Of course, all contributors are aware of the change but there is no agreement over when it took place. Around the middle of the 19th century is one suggestion. About 100 years ago is another. What is not in dispute is that the change of title has radically changed its popular meaning. Involved here is yet another irony.
In 1998, the US senate agreed that 6 April should be officially nominated National Tartan Day in America. Why? Because the 1776 Declaration of Independence had been modelled by the founding fathers on the Declaration of Arbroath. No fewer than eight of the contributors to this book refer at length to this development. Most are sceptical of its accuracy, and, like the majority of historians, none offer any evidence in support of it. Only on p.525, however, is what I believe to be the correct explanation provided: the change to the Declaration of Arbroath was a consequence of the popularity of the Declaration of Independence. In any event, what is not in doubt is that America's 1998 decision, however misguided, served to boost international awareness of the Declaration of Arbroath.
And the book's subtitle? I guess it is there to justify the inclusion of several chapters, often of much interest, but only tenuously linked to the Declaration of Arbroath – not to mention another two or three which concern neither Scotland nor
Arbroath. One of these is the only scary chapter in the book. Its author is French, and its focus is on the danger of the growing neo-fascist and anti-Islamist 'Fortress Europe' movement in so many countries. Ironically, the opening chapter of Scotland and Arbroath
draws attention to what is described as 'the Declaration’s anti-Muslim stance'. Perhaps the French writer is right to argue that our liberal democratic tradition can only be saved, not by a return to Arbroath, but by a transnational commitment to an ecological 'earth nationalism' policy.